Two million public sector workers in the UK went on strike yesterday over changes to their pensions in the biggest walkout for decades, closing thousands of schools and disrupting transport.
Three-quarters of schools were estimated to be closed during the 24-hour strike, hospitals were operating with skeleton staff and local authorities were brought to a standstill.
Striking workers picketed public sector buildings in central London and more than 1,000 demonstrations were expected to take place across the UK in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s.
Fears of long delays at London Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s busiest air hubs, failed to materialize yesterday morning as two-thirds of immigration officials turned up for work.
The strike is the biggest test so far of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which sparked the unions’ fury by making public sector workers pay more into their pensions and work longer.
Anger rose further on Tuesday when British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne targeted the pay of teachers, nurses and soldiers and revealed plans to cut an extra 300,000 public sector jobs as he slashed the UK’s growth forecasts.
Osborne infuriated the unions by announcing a new two-year, 1 percent cap on public sector pay rises.
Yesterday, Osborne said the strike would only harm the economy and called for unions to return to the negotiating table.
“The strike is not going to achieve anything, it’s not going to change anything,” Osborne told BBC TV. “It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs.”
However, Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the public sector was “under attack” from the government and the strike was fully justified.
“There comes a time when people really have to stand up and make a stand,” he told ITV. “With the scale of change the government are trying to force through, making people work much, much longer and get much, much less, that’s the call people have made.”
In Salford, northwest England, about 30 garbage collectors manning a picket line outside their depot dismissed claims their pensions were “gold-plated” compared with those in the private sector.
“The government is attacking our pension schemes — they are looking for public sector workers to contribute more, work longer and receive less in pension benefits,” said Neil Clarke, a union organizer with Unite. “The average public sector pension comes in at ￡3,000 [US$4,650] a year. Could you live on ￡3,000 a year?”
At Heathrow airport, passengers arriving on early morning flights from Australia and the US reported few problems, despite prior warnings that delays of up to three hours were likely.
Elsewhere in England, the light-rail train system was closed down by the strike in Newcastle, northeast England.
A giant union rally was to take place in the industrial central city of Birmingham and in Scotland, 300,000 workers were expected to walk out.
Among the government’s proposals, public sector workers face a lower pension payout, based on their average salary as opposed to the final salary schemes to which they are currently tied.